Evil Speech has Consequences

person s face covered with white powder
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M’tzora, (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

Last week we learned of a mother’s isolation after childbirth. This week, God tells Moses how to “purify” a person who was afflicted by tsara’at and who then healed. A priest must confirm that the person is healed, then make some sacrifices. The healed person washes his clothes, shaves off all his hair and bathes. He remains outside for seven more days and is then deemed clean and capable of reentry into the community.

The Talmud makes it very clear that tsara’at was not a contagious disease, but a condition caused by improper speech. Why such a serious penalty for just talk? Didn’t our Rabbis have mothers who told them sticks and stones may break their bones, but words can never harm them? Why would “evil speech” cause such a horrible affliction (what was it?) that could only be healed with isolation and ritual.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l said, ‘tsara’at in the Torah is a condition that brings not sickness but rather impurity, tumah. The appearance of mold or discoloration on the walls of a house was the first public signal. It said to everyone living or visiting there, “Bad things have been said in this place.” Little by little the signals came closer to the culprit, appearing next on their bed or chair, then on their clothes, then on their skin, until eventually their found themselves diagnosed as defiled.’

Why specifically in the case of lashon hara, “evil speech”? Because as Rabbi Sacks says, speech is what holds society together. Language evolved to allow people to cooperate in larger groupings than any other animal. Co-operation requires trust. Lashon hara destroys trust. It makes people suspicious about one another. And this is perhaps why the priest is called to determine if the person is cured. Is the priest really checking for lesions or for teshuva? The lesions will only be gone if this divinely imposed condition has been lifted. And I think this would have only occurred with divinely recognized repentance. The priests were the divinity monitors.

We won’t find tsara’at today. But we find the ills of evil speech. We find it in the lies being circulated on social media and on news broadcasts. We find it in personal, public attacks on people who disagree or are members of a different political parties. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a 1983 op-ed in the Washington Post said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (Actually that saying came from a similar quote from Bernard Baruch in 1946.) And those separate facts are destroying our trust of each other, and the very fabric of our society. We must be vigilant in distinguishing evil speech.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell the purveyors of lashon hara by the appearance of white lesions on their skin? Where is tsara’at when we really need it?

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Carl Viniar

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